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Sweet home Kokomo

Kokomo stage 2A Kokomo reunion would always have been high on the wants list of anyone who saw them in their 1970s heyday, when they were consistently the hottest live experience London’s small venues had to offer. This summer it turned into reality, and last night their short tour reached the Half Moon in Putney: just the sort of intimate, informal joint they once rocked, and which they can still sell out with ease.

It wasn’t quite the original line-up. Mel Collins is in the US with King Crimson, Jody Linscott is in Japan, Terry Stannard is long retired, Alan Spenner is no longer with us and, sadly, Dyan Birch was unwell. But Nigel Hitchcock, Frank Tontoh, Glen LeFleur and Jennifer Maidman took the places of Collins, Stannard, Linscott and Spenner on tenor saxophone, drums, congas and bass guitar respectively, while Helena-May Harrison, from the evening’s support band, Man May’d, stepped into the space left by the missing singer at a couple of hours’ notice to bring a fine voice and an irresistible vivacity to the show.

As with any classic vehicle, there were a few creaks and glitches along the way before the oil had fully circulated around the mechanism, but the storming two-hour set would have satisfied anyone’s expectations. The band warmed up with “Tee Time”, an old favourite instrumental, before the singers arrived for “Third Time Around”. Tony O’Malley took over Birch’s lead part on “Yes We Can”, Paddie McHugh stopped the show with “Angel” just as he used to do, and Frank Collins conducted the soul choir on “With Everything I Feel in Me”. Neil Hubbard and Jim Mullen supplied contrasting guitar solos of the highest quality, while Hitchcock did the Don Wilkerson/Fathead Newman thing to great effect. Maidman and Tontoh meshed beautifully on “Lonely Town, Lonely Street” and “I Can Understand It”. The audience needed no urging to join in on a celebratory new song called “Back at the Bag”.

They encored with a rolling “Sweet Home Kokomo” and a bit of crisp audience participation on “The Ghetto”. Two hours didn’t seem nearly enough for all the catching up they and we have to do.

* Left to right in the photograph: Tony O’Malley, Neil Hubbard, Helena-May Harrison, Paddie McHugh, Frank Collins, Jim Mullen and Nigel Hitchcock. At the gigs they’re selling a CD put together from a two-track tape recorded at the Venue in 1981: it’s a lovely souvenir and is downloadable at cdbaby.com.

 

Strings attached

Bird with strings 2Charlie Parker’s album with strings was the record that persuaded Gilad Atzmon to become a jazz musician. “Now I wish I’d never heard it,” the Israeli-born, London-based alto saxophonist and bandleader announced at Ronnie Scott’s last night, giving his listeners a reminder of the sort of sardonic humour not regularly heard at 47 Frith Street since the club’s founder died in 1996.

Supervised by Norman Granz in 1949, and also featuring oboe, French horn and harp along with a five- or six-piece string section, the Bird with Strings sessions broadened Parker’s audience but were despised by critics. You can see why: on the face of it, this is the equivalent of covering a monastery refectory’s fine, plain oak table with a fancy lace cloth. And there’s no Bud Powell or Dizzy Gillespie or Max Roach to interact with the greatest improviser of his age. But the weird thing is how great the records sound today: Parker, who never spoke ill of the project, soars above the background, his inventions dizzyingly crammed with substance and always propelled by that extraordinary life-force.

Atzmon was performing some of the pieces from those recordings with his quartet, the Orient House Ensemble (Frank Harrison on piano, Yaron Stavi on bass and Chris Higginbottom on drums), and the Sigamos Quartet (violinists Ros Stephen and Marianne Haynes, viola-player Felix Tanner and cellist Laura Moody). Stephen’s arrangements update the work done on the original sessions by Jimmy Carroll and Joe Lipman, making effective use of the pared-down resources and creating a strong bond between the two sides of what is in effect a double quartet. They recorded some of them in the same format on Atzmon’s album In Loving Memory of America in 2009, and the following year Atzmon and Stephen joined Robert Wyatt on For the Ghosts Within, where the ghosts included the spirit of Bird with Strings.

At Ronnie’s they featured “Everything Happens to Me”, “April in Paris” and “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was”, all of which featured Atzmon’s pungent sound and urgent triple-time flurries, with Harrison’s delicate soloing providing the occasional oasis of calm reflection. Unlike those pieces, which remained close to the approach and mood of the Parker recordings, “If I Should Lose You” contained noir-ish sound effects from the string quartet while “What Is This Thing Called Love” came retrofitted with a trip-hop beat and deadpan string riffs. Several of Atzmon’s own compositions also varied the mix, including one called “Moscow”, from a recent album devoted to portraits of major cities, its hint of bombast capturing the sometimes oppressive ambiance of the Russian capital.

They finished with a piece that is, as Atzmon observed, one of the most beautiful of all jazz-associated tunes: David Raksin’s “Laura”, composed for Otto Preminger’s 1945 movie but transformed four years later into a vehicle for Parker’s genius, and the perfect way to end an enormously enjoyable evening of homage and rebirth.

* The photograph of Charlie Parker with his string players is taken from Gary Giddins’s book Celebrating Bird (Hodder & Stoughton, 1987), where it was used by permission of Maely Daniele Dufty and the Bevan Dufty Collection. 

Coltrane in the Temple

John Coltrane : Temple UThe final period of John Coltrane’s career is the great unresolved topic of jazz, and the arguments over its meaning and value will probably never cease. How could someone who in 1964 had reached the plateau of apparent artistic perfection represented by Crescent and A Love Supreme then make such a radical transition into the area of turbulence and uncertainty that he occupied in the period until his death in 1967, and which is embodied in a new two-CD set titled Offering: Live at Temple University?

I suppose the answer is that Crescent and A Love Supreme did not represent a plateau at all. That was just an illusion created by the fact that Coltrane went into a recording studio on those particular days, laid down the music on which he had been working, and then saw the results released by his record company, subsequently to be reviewed by critics, bought by his fans, and slotted neatly into a narrative of one man’s artistic evolution. The jazz public, particularly in Europe, has always seen the history of jazz as a progression from one recorded artefact to another; that is not, in general, how the musicians experience it. Whereas we think of A Love Supreme as one of the great music’s pillars, to Coltrane it may have been nothing more than a milestone that had already disappeared from his rear-view mirror by the time of its appearance in the record stores.

Offering is a complete and official release of a 1966 concert previously available only in partial and bootleg form. The combined production staff of Impulse Records, Coltrane’s label at the time, and Resonance Records, who specialise in unearthing previously hidden gems, have restored the tapes originally made by WRTI-FM, the radio station at Temple University in Philadelphia, during an event that was by all accounts poorly attended and received a mixed response from those who did turn up. Ashley Kahn tells the fascinating story in his sensitive and erudite sleeve note, piecing together the details of an evening on which three members of Coltrane’s regular band — Pharoah Sanders, Alice Coltrane and Rashied Ali — were joined by Sonny Johnson, depping for Jimmy Garrison. More significantly, the leader was happy to welcome a platoon of auxiliary percussionists (Robert Kenyatta, Algie DeWitt, Umar Ali and perhaps others) and to give space to solos by a couple of spirited young alto saxophonists, Steve Knoblauch and Arnold Joyner, whose impromptu appearances that evening represent the only mark they made on jazz history. 

Indistinct as the sound of the rhythm section might still be on the restored recording, the acoustic effect is probably very much as the audience experienced it that night. More important, the solo voices come through with great clarity, and none to better effect than that of Coltrane, whose tenor improvisations on the long, free-associative versions of “Naima” and “Crescent”, which constitute the first of the two discs, are strong in tone, wonderfully poised and — as Kahn points out — dense with closely argued motivic development. The title track is one of his lovely prayer-ballads. But during “Leo”, on which he is heard on soprano, tenor and flute, and on the closing “My Favourite Things”, he also uses his voice, chanting and apparently thumping his chest in an attempt to produce the sound he was after: trying to get closer, it seems, to speaking in tongues.

We know that he was strongly influenced by the music of Albert Ayler, who used his saxophone as a tool with which to attain spiritual transcendence. It has often been said, too, that the use of LSD was a factor in the creative decisions underlying Coltrane’s final years. Had he lived beyond his 41st year, he might one day have sat down and explained his thinking in detail. Since that won’t happen, we’re left to work it out for ourselves. Offering can’t answer all the questions, but it’s a big chunk of priceless evidence. And it contains some incontestably majestic saxophone-playing.

* The photograph is a cropped version of one that appears in the booklet with Offering: Live at Temple University (Impulse/Resonance), where it appears by courtesy of the University of California’s Special Collections and Archives and the Frank Kofsky Archives.

“The world is in an uproar…”

Sad and lonely, all the time

That’s because I’ve got a worried mind

You know the world is in an uproar

The danger zone is everywhere, everywhere

When Ray Charles recorded Percy Mayfield’s “The Danger Zone” in New York on the afternoon of the 4th of July, 1961, a few hours before a gig in Atlantic City, the world was indeed in an uproar. In the Congo, Patrice Lumumba had just been assassinated. Paris’s two commercial airports had recently been closed for fear of airborne attacks by Algerian rebels. In Cuba, the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion had failed to topple the Castro regime. Black and white “freedom riders” had been attacked by racists in Montgomery, Alabama. The anti-communist Ngo Dinh Diem had won a presidential election in South Vietnam, where the US government was planning to send thousands more “military advisers”. Rhodesia had just refused to give blacks a bigger say in government. A month later, the Berlin Wall would go up overnight.

I have a long list of favourite Ray Charles records, and “The Danger Zone”, with its perfectly judged vocal and gorgeous small-band arrangement, might just be first among equals. I encountered it on the B-side of “Hit the Road, Jack”, recorded that same afternoon. The words of Mayfield, a great writer, lose no power as the decades go by, and they came to mind yesterday when a track from Leonard Cohen’s forthcoming album, Popular Problems, appeared on YouTube.

I was guided to it by an item on my friend Martin Colyer’s excellent blog, Five Things I Saw & Heard This Week. It’s called “Almost Like the Blues”, and here it is. An unadorned 12-bar sequence, a simple bass-guitar, ticking hand-drums, discreet acoustic and electric keys, a female chorale, a sudden wash of synthetic strings, a distant horn section, and this, delivered as a semi-recitative by a man nearing the end of his 80th year on earth:

I saw some people starving, there was murder, there was rape

Their villages were burning, they were trying to escape

I couldn’t meet their glances, I was staring at my shoes

It was acid, it was tragic, it was almost like the blues

Like the poet Mayfield, the poet Cohen is doing what a poet does: blending the personal and the universal, the great and the small, for an audience waking up each day to the news from Iraq and Syria, Gaza, Ukraine, and Ferguson, Missouri. He doesn’t try to make sense of it. No one could do that. But he leaves us thinking.

There is no god in heaven and there is no hell below

So says the great professor of all there is to know

But I’ve had the invitation that a sinner can’t refuse

And it’s almost like salvation, it’s almost like the blues…

 

Marius Neset / Trondheim Jazz Orchestra

http://youtu.be/watDRZJLB6U

It was a liberating moment for large jazz ensembles in general when Carla Bley and Charlie Haden decided, while putting together the first Liberation Music Orchestra album in 1968, that big bands no longer had to operate according to a policy of strict precision. The informality of the amateur bands assembled for Balkan weddings, Sicilian funerals or Andalucian saints’ day parades seemed more appropriate to the spirit of jazz than the militaristic discipline associated with, say, the Buddy Rich Orchestra. It was something that Duke Ellington and Charlie Mingus had always known, but they were thought to be exceptions to the rule that if you have four trumpeters, they should start and finish a phrase as if they were four mouthpieces attached to a single instrument, rather than the voices of four individuals.

Something similar happened in rock music when the Band came along. The voices of Richard Manuel, Rick Danko and Levon Helm were distinct from each other, each with its own tone and grain. This cross-textured quality set their harmonies apart from those of, say, the Beach Boys and the Four Seasons, who aimed to produce a unified, homogenised choral sound.

I was thinking about that while listening to the saxophonist Marius Neset and the 11-piece Trondheim Jazz Orchestra perform pieces from their recent ACT album, Lion, at Ronnie Scott’s last night. These conservatory-trained Norwegians are phenomenal technicians, and the compositions Neset has provided for them are complex and challenging, to say the least, but the collective attack of the ensemble has nothing to do with nanosecond exactness and everything to do with the human element of a dozen people playing together. That humanity was the overriding impression left by an hour and a half of exceptional music.

The breadth and subtlety of Neset’s writing for this usual ensemble (two trumpets, trombone, tuba, three saxophones, accordion, piano, bass and drums) demonstrates that he is a musical thinker of great qualities, with a gift for unexpected combinations of instrumental timbres that is handed down from Ellington and Gil Evans (the opening of the ballad titled “Raining”, for instance, was ravishing). His long, often discursive pieces left plenty of room for solos by each of the musicians, all of whom made handsome use of the opportunity. Eivind Loning’s trumpet multiphonics, Eirik Hegdal’s rampaging baritone saxophone (imagine John Surman after swallowing a bag of rusty nails), Jovan Pavlovic’s delicate accordion and Espen Berg’s discreet piano — occupying a clearing that suddenly appeared in the middle of the otherwise densely eventful “Weight of the World” — were outstanding. The individual highlight of the whole night, however, was a long, long bass solo by Petter Eldh, whose energy and inventiveness seemed inexhaustible; somewhere inside my head, his sprung rhythms were still unwinding themselves the next morning.

I don’t think Neset himself is a great improviser yet. He has all the equipment, but in the arc of his solos and his mannerisms — the horn comes out of his mouth and his left hand flies off the keys at regular intervals, while his blond hair flops rather fetchingly as his body flexes in ecstasy — he’s less like a conventional jazz musician than a lead guitarist in a prog-rock band, whose playing always has to build inexorably to a climax guaranteed to lift listeners from their seats. Which, in his case, it does. But once a night is enough. After that it begins to feel predictable. At 29, however, he has time on his side.

Postscript: A benefit for Kenny Wheeler

Reuben Fowler Big Band 2The concert organised for the benefit of Kenny Wheeler in East London on Friday night ended with an astonishing set from the Reuben Fowler Big Band. The 22-strong outfit played three of Wheeler’s compositions — “The Jigsaw”, “Sea Lady” and The 2005 Suite — and mastered their complexities with a verve and precision that would have delighted the composer, had his health permitted his attendance at the old Dalston Odeon cinema, now known as Epic.

Fowler, only 24 years old, left his trumpet in its case on this occasion but proved to be an adept conductor, exerting a degree of control that allowed the music to breathe. He began his musical life in brass bands in his native Yorkshire, which may be why he responded at an early age to Wheeler’s music, with its love of brass sonorities (here articulated by five trumpeters, all doubling flugelhorn, and four trombones). 

Wheeler’s role was played successively by Steve Fishwick, Martin Shaw and George Hogg, all of whom performed with distinction, as did Brigitte Beraha, singing the parts originally written for Norma Winstone. Evan Parker’s soprano saxophone introduction to “Sea Lady” was even more striking than on its original appearance as part of Wheeler’s 1990 ECM album, Music for Large & Small Ensembles. The suite, written by Kenny for his 75th birthday tour and originally featuring Lee Konitz, has never been recorded; that oversight should be rectified as soon as possible, preferably with the musicians who did it such justice on Friday.

The evening also included a remarkable set by the Alison Blunt Ensemble, in which the violinist led her dozen musicians — all strings, with the exception of Mark Sanders on drums and Neil Metcalfe on flute — produced striking interpretations of some of Wheeler’s compositions, with the benefit of a mere hour’s rehearsal but much empathy and spirit. 

A lot of people had taken considerable trouble to make this a memorable event, not least Parker, the principal organiser, and Blanca Regina, whose projections on a side wall provided a constant reminder of the evening’s subject. All the money raised will go towards defraying the costs of health care for Kenny and his wife, Doreen. When I wrote a piece on this blog in advance of the concert, some readers abroad asked how they could make a contribution. There is now a PayPal account for that purpose; its email address is friendsofkennywheeler@gmail.com. Go to http://www.paypal.com and click on “Send Money”.

A benefit for Kenny Wheeler

Kenny WheelerFew important musicians have made more noise with less fuss than the trumpeter, flugelhornist, composer and bandleader Kenny Wheeler. A vital figure on the British scene since his arrival in London from his native Canada in 1952 at the age of 22, he emerged from early employment with dance bands to create a reputation that flourished despite a temperament for which such words as “modest” and “retiring” seem entirely inadequate.

Kenny is a musician of immense range. I’ve been listening to some of his early work lately, with the saxophone-playing racing driver Buddy Featherstonhaugh’s excellent pianoless quintet of 1956, which recorded a couple of EPs for Pye, and also to his classic ECM album of 1997, Angel Song, with a fabulous quartet completed by Lee Konitz, Bill Frisell and Dave Holland. In between he contributed to any number of great records, among which I particularly cherish two classics of the early British avant-garde, as nurtured at the Little Theatre Club: the Spontaneous Music Ensemble’s Karyobin (Island, 1968) and Tony Oxley’s The Baptised Traveller (CBS, 1969). 

Problems with his own and his wife’s health have meant that, at the age of 84, Kenny has been unable to play for some months. For his benefit, his old friend and colleague Evan Parker has organised a concert tomorrow night — Friday, August 15 — at a place called Epic, 13-15 Stoke Newington Road, London N16 8BH (admission £12-£10). A stone’s throw from the Vortex and Cafe Oto, the gig will feature the altoist Ray Warleigh’s quartet, a group with Parker, Steve Beresford, Olie Brice and Mark Sanders, the Alison Blunt Ensemble (including the violinists Dylan Bates and Phil Wachsmann), and Reuben Fowler’s big band playing some of Kenny’s charts.

Kenny won’t be playing, but John Coxon of Spring Heel Jack — with whom he also recorded to great effect — will be at the turntable between the sets, playing some of his records and reminding us of his audacious imagination, as well as the purity of tone and elegance of articulation that put him alongside Booker Little in a line of trumpeters stretching from Joe Wilder to Ambrose Akinmusire. 

* The photograph of Kenny Wheeler was taken by W. Patrick Hinely (Work/Play) for the booklet accompanying Angel Song (ECM 1607).

The art school dance

Deaf SchoolA very good piece on Nina Simone by Claudia Roth Pierpont in the current New Yorker, prompted by the controversial casting of a light-skinned actress to play the singer in a new biopic, reminded me of a piece I wish I’d never written: a review of Simone some time in the 1980s, in which I brusquely criticised her lateness on stage and outbursts of extreme rudeness directed at an adoring audience. The facts as I reported them were all true, but the scathing tone makes it impossible for me to read it today with a clear conscience. If I’d had a greater understanding of her problems, I’d have been a bit more sympathetic.

I mention this because I’ve been thinking about another piece I regret having written: a column in the Melody Maker in 1976, about the launch of a Liverpool band called Deaf School. I’d met them a year earlier, when I was running the A&R department at Island Records in London. They were recommended to me by another Liverpool band, called Nasty Pop, whom I’d just signed and who were part of the same art-school nexus. I went up to see them, enjoyed their show, liked them as people, and briefly showed an interest.

There were about 10 of them, and they were a troupe rather than a band. If you can imagine a cross between Roxy Music (the ’50s futurism) and the Bonzo Dog Band (the ’20s whimsy), with a bit of Sha Na Na and the Shangri-Las thrown in, that’s what they were: exuberantly and amusingly theatrical, in a dressing-up-box kind of way. I liked that, as I liked it in the Magnificent Moodies, the performance art troupe of a year or so earlier. But I didn’t think the songs were great and it wasn’t a disappointment when Warner Brothers, in the person of the great Derek Taylor (the former Beatles/Byrds PR, turned managing director of WB UK), won a brief but fierce bidding war with Virgin, on whose behalf Richard Branson turned up at several of the band’s gigs.

Enrico Cadillac Jnr (Steve Allen), Bette Bright (Anne Martin) and Eric Shark (Sam Davis) were the singers; they lost a second Bright Sister, Sandy (Sandra Harris), soon after signing their record deal, along with a couple of other members. Most of them had stage names: the keyboard player — an art teacher, as opposed to a student, called John Wood — was known as the Rev Max Ripple, and the bassist, Steve Lindsey, called himself Mr Average. The one I talked to most was the lead guitarist, Clive Langer (known as Cliff Hanger), who was effectively their musical director and the one who focused their ambitions. Clive knew a lot about music and we had some interesting conversations.

By the time that the debut album, titled 2nd Honeymoon, came out, I’d left Island and was writing a weekly column for the MM. The piece I wrote about Deaf School attempted to explore the notion that, however good they were, the timing of their appearance meant they were fated to find themselves trying to catch a ship that had already sailed. Something else was about to happen, something new, and groups of that kind weren’t going to be a part of it. So I said so, although not unkindly. But it had an effect. In Deaf School: The Non Stop Pop Art Punk Rock Party, published last year by Liverpool University Press, Paul Du Noyer writes: “To this day it’s the single piece of media coverage that bothers Deaf School most.”

Warner Brothers spent a lot of money on the band, fronting up for three albums and a tour of America. The forces of history and changing taste, perhaps as reflected in one newspaper column, conspired against their chances of making the kind of breakthrough achieved by Roxy Music, their early idols.

They broke up in 1978 and I didn’t see any of them again until last year, when Clive Langer got in touch. Over a cup of coffee in Soho he told me about his years spent successfully producing Madness’s hits. He also gave me a copy of Paul Du Noyer’s book, in which I read for the first time of the damage that column had done to their morale. But Clive didn’t bear a grudge, and the other day he invited me to one of the reunion gigs they’ve been doing from time to time over the past 25 years. This one, on Friday night, was the first of two at the Islington pub near the Angel, arranged as a warm-up for the Rebellion Festival in Blackpool on Sunday and a short tour in November, including four nights at the Borderline in London.

Two of the original band, the drummer Tim Whittaker and Sam Davis, are dead. Gregg Braden has been the drummer since last year, but the rest are as they were on 2nd Honeymoon. Clive is a record producer (and co-wrote “Shipbuilding” with Elvis Costello), Anne Martin is married to Suggs and is the mother of their two daughters, Steve Allen has been a solo artist and an A&R man for Warner Brothers, Ian Ritchie is a composer and session player, Steve Lindsey became a successful publisher with Island Music, and John Wood taught various YBAs and Blur’s Graham Coxon at Goldsmiths College before retiring in 2010.

The gig, on a hot night in a tiny room, and in front of a cheerful audience, was a blast: just the way I remembered them back in Liverpool almost 40 years ago, albeit with greater instrumental proficiency. The set was built up of material from throughout their history, including their most recent stuff, a rather good five-song CD released as Enrico & Bette in 2011, all delivered with verve and humour. One song really stood out: “Taxi”, not the J Blackfoot soul ballad of the same name but a composition by Langer and Allen, the band’s chief composers, and originally released as a single to promote their second album, Don’t Stop the World. Today it sounds like a lost classic of intelligent pure pop; goodness knows how it didn’t do for Deaf School what “Johnny Don’t Do It” and “Rubber Bullets” had done for 10cc, or what “Little Does She Know” did for the Kursaal Flyers. Here it is, in its original form, from Granada TV’s Manchester studios in 1977.

A lot of bands missed the same boat in the mid-70s: others whose demos dropped on my desk were Burlesque, City Boy and Bebop Deluxe. But at least most of the members of Deaf School have survived and prospered, with enthusiasm intact. For wiping a bit of the gloss off an early moment of joy, I apologise. And if they’re around your way, they’re worth a trip in order to confirm that, as Pete Brown once wrote, the art school dance goes on for ever.

* The photograph of Bette Bright, Enrico Cadillac Jr and Ian Ritchie, with Cliff Hanger and Mr Average just visible in the background, was taken at the Islington pub on August 8, 2014.

The New Yorker vs Sonny Rollins

Sonny RollinsI grew up reading Whitney Balliett in the New Yorker, admiring the work of a writer who, with infinite sensitivity and imagination, used words to evoke the sound and humanity of jazz and of the individuals who played it. Balliett died in 2008, aged 80; whenever I open his Collected Works: A Journal of Jazz 1954-2000, I learn something about how to listen and how to write.

So it was with horror that I read the other day, on the New Yorker‘s website, a spoof interview with Sonny Rollins, the great tenor saxophonist. Under the headline “Sonny Rollins: In His Own Words”, someone calling himself Django Gold invented an interview in which the musician trashes his own life and work in the most caustically dismissive terms. Here it is.

A lot of people were upset, leading to the insertion of the italic paragraph indicating that the piece was intended to be a work of satire. But damage had been done, and not all of it can be undone by hurried clarifications. On their respective blogs, the trumpeter Nicholas Payton and the critic Howard Mandel expressed their anger with considerable eloquence.

I associate myself with their sentiments. Whether or not Rollins is one of your favourite saxophonists, few have worked with greater dedication to extend a command of both instrumental technique and the idiom’s inner workings. In this connection it’s still worth reading Gunther Schuller’s ground-breaking essay “Sonny Rollins and the Challenge of Thematic Improvisation”, published in the first issue of the short-lived Jazz Review in 1958. Whatever its intention, Django Gold’s piece insults a great and much revered artist.

Rollins, who turns 84 next month and has not been in great health lately, was given the chance to express his feelings in a video interview with Doug Yoel. It’s half an hour long and sometimes repetitive, but stick with it. Looking back over a career that began in the late 1940s, Rollins says he remembers articles proclaiming “Jazz is dead” in magazines every five or 10 years throughout that time. “Jazz has been mocked, minimalised and marginalised throughout its history,” he says. Now Django Gold and the editors of a magazine’s website have done their bit. Jazz is still a part of New York, but evidently no longer an important part of the New Yorker.

Zen archer

Charles Lloyd 1There’s a poignant moment during Arrows into Infinity, a new biographical film about Charles Lloyd, when the saxophonist recalls a conversation by the bedside of his old friend and colleague Billy Higgins in 2001. The great drummer, who is close to death, declares that they’ve got to keep working on the music. “He’s like 90lb,” Lloyd says. “I said, ‘Are you going to get off this bed and come back and play with me?’ He said, ‘I didn’t say I’d be there, but I’ll always be with you.'”

Lloyd is a spiritual man, which accounts for his absence from music for several years in the 1970s. In conventional career terms, his withdrawal made no sense. His late-’60s quartet, with Keith Jarrett on piano, had sold plenty of records and made connections beyond the usual jazz audience; they had played the Fillmore and toured behind the Iron Curtain. He had appeared as a guest on recordings by the Beach Boys (Holland, 15 Big Ones, MIU) and the post-Morrison Doors (Full Circle). Nevertheless he chose to drop out, in response to the music industry’s unwelcome expectations. “They wanted me to become a product,” he says in the film. “And to become a product, I would have to be predictable. I wasn’t looking for fame or fortune. I was looking for the zone, the holy grail of music. That was my salvation, because I had heard it and I knew what it was. That was my saviour. It was the light.”

He moved from Malibu to Big Sur, married an artist named Dorothy Darr, and established a different sort of life, his performing for a while largely restricted to playing the oboe at readings by his neighbours Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Gary Snyder. Not until 1980 did the French pianist Michel Petrucciani pay him a visit and entice him back to the public stage. Since then he has re-established himself as an important figure, recording a series of albums for the ECM label, where he was teamed first in a quartet with the pianist Bobo Stenson and then with other partners including Higgins, the guitarist John Abercrombie, the pianist Geri Allen, the tabla master Zakir Hussain and the singer Maria Farantouri.

His current quartet features Jason Moran (piano), Ruben Rogers (bass) and Eric Harland (drums), young men who clearly relish their interaction with a veteran whose sound and ideas become more exquisitely distilled with each passing year. It’s a fine band, a perfect setting for his breadth of vision. Here they are at a French jazz festival in 2011, giving Brian Wilson’s “Caroline, No” a rather different treatment.

Born in Memphis in 1938, Lloyd listened to Lester Young and Charlie Parker as a teenager and played R&B with Howlin’ Wolf and Junior Parker before leaving for Los Angeles. I first heard him as a key member of the Chico Hamilton Quintet of 1962-63, one of my favourite groups of the time. Lloyd wrote virtually all of the group’s material, which — like his own tenor-playing — took its inspiration from John Coltrane’s innovations and marked a fruitful change of direction for Hamilton, away from chamber jazz and towards something more robust. The distinctive flavour of the quintet’s sound came from the guitar of Gabor Szabo, who loved drones and could summon the effect of a sitar, a koto, an oud or a saz, blending particularly well with Lloyd’s flute. They made three albums as a quintet — Drumfusion for Columbia, Passin’ Thru for Impulse and A Different Journey for Reprise — and one as a quartet, Impulse’s Man from Two Worlds, which also included the first version of Lloyd’s “Forest Flower”, which became a hit for his own quartet a few years later.

The recordings with Hamilton are all available on CD, and Passin’ Thru remains one of my favourite albums of the era, not least thanks to the powerful grooves sustained by the phenomenal young bassist Albert Stinson. Here’s a track called “El Toro”, which shows why Stinson was good enough to sub for Ron Carter with Miles Davis and would surely have become a major figure on his instrument had he not died from a heroin overdose while touring with Larry Coryell in 1969, aged 24.

Drugs were another reason why Lloyd dropped out. “I hit a wall and I couldn’t really function,” he says. “At a certain point I began to suffer musically and I began to suffer spiritually. I had to go away.” His studies in philosophy and religion got him through it, with the help of Dorothy Darr, who has produced and directed Arrows into Infinity with Jeffery Morse, gathering historic TV and concert footage from the ’60s (London, Newport, Antibes, Tallinn etc), film of recent performances with the current quartet, and of duets with Billy Higgins, giving us a chance to enjoy again the drummer’s matchless sense of swing and unforgettable smile. There are interviews with Herbie Hancock, Jack DeJohnette, Robbie Robertson, Jim Keltner, Don Was, Zakir Hussain, Geri Allen and many others — including, amazingly, Lewis Steinberg, the original bass player with Booker T and the MGs, who knew the young Lloyd in Memphis. There’s also a delightful sequence of Lloyd playing pool with Ornette Coleman; the two were friends in LA in the ’50s.

Lloyd himself, however, is the most interesting witness to the journey that took him from Howlin’ Wolf to Zakir Hussain. The film tells a fascinating story of survival and self-realisation in which his gentle wisdom is as impressive as his music.

* The photograph of Charles Lloyd is from the booklet accompanying Arrows into Infinity, which is released by ECM.

 

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